Bulgarian Split Squats Muscles Worked: The Definitive Guide

You probably fancy yourself as a pretty “cultured” person. I mean, back in the day, you probably never missed any of the internationally-focused episodes of Wild On! getting your fill of…”interesting” customs and practices from around the world!

Even if you’re not the most sophisticated lifter out there, it’s time to set aside your xenophobic tendencies for just a second and focus on an outstanding gym movement hailing from way out in Eastern Europe. 

The Bulgarian Split Squat, to be specific.

Bulgarian Split Squats (not to be confused with “traditional” back squats) are an exceptional exercise to incorporate in your workout routine, especially if you’re looking for a new/niche way to work your lower body. As a unilateral leg exercise (meaning you only focus on one leg at a time), this movement (which seems to be growing in popularity at a really rapid pace) not only engages multiple muscle groups but also helps improve balance and stability. 

Before you hop on the next flight to Sofia (that’s the capital of Bulgaria for you geographically-challenged readers!) It’s crucial to understand how important it is to develop proper technique when performing this somewhat “different” exercise for the leg muscles.

bulgarian split squats muscles worked
Can be a pretty cheap flight…if you don’t mind a ~12-hour lay-over!

Simple…right?

Let’s see if this “simplicity” holds up!

Understanding Bulgarian Split Squats

Bulgarian Split Squats are a type of single leg squatting exercise that involves placing one foot on a bench or a box behind you, and lowering your body until your front thigh is parallel to the floor. This single-leg squat variation may pose some challenges, especially if you aren’t the most mobile/lack outstanding mobility. However, the benefits of the exercise are numerous. Let’s take a look at the muscles worked and benefits of this unique exercise.

Bulgarian Split Squats require more balance, coordination, and stabilization than “traditional” back (or front) barbell squats, as they involve working many of the same joints and muscles…only they do so while trainees are (somewhat) balanced on one foot. 

This squat variation differs from other squatting exercises in several ways. With its single-leg focus, the Bulgarian split squat offers more freedom and variety of motion. You can perform the exercise with different foot placements, angles, and bench heights.

@briandecosta

Additionally, the Bulgarian Split Squat is functional and transferable to other sports and activities, as it closely mimics the natural movements and activities of daily life. Integrating this unilateral movement  into your regimen can help improve balance, increase strength, and contribute to the overall development of athleticism.

The $64,000 Question – What Muscles do Bulgarian Split Squats Work?

As you might expect, Bulgarian Split Squats do a lot to work your lower body. Specifically, they are ideal for targeting the quads and glutes. The quads help extend the knee, while the glutes are responsible for hip extension. 

Bulgarian split squats also work the hamstrings, calves and adductors. These muscles assist in stabilizing the movement and maintaining proper posture throughout the movement. 

If you add a load to the movement (ex. Holding dumbbells, kettlebells in your hands, a barbells on your back)  you’ll create a much greater stimulus in your  lats, abs, shoulders, and lower back. 

Benefits of Doing Bulgarian Split Squats – The Ultimate Lower Body Exercise?

Bulgarian split squats are, in all honesty, pretty hard to perform. 

…so…you probably expect some comparable benefits, right? 

Yeah, I get you; let’s take a look at these benefits:

Enhanced Balance and Coordination: As you perform Bulgarian split squats, you’ll put your balance and stability to the test, ultimately helping you to develop better coordination. This leads to improvements in functional movements and overall posture.

Increased Strength: As previously mentioned, this exercise effectively targets multiple muscle groups, like your quads, glutes, and hamstrings. As you stimulate more muscle fibers, you’ll see improvements in leg strength and endurance.

Greater Range of Motion and Flexibility: Bulgarian Split Squats require a long range of motion, which helps to increase mobility and flexibility in your lower body.

Reduced Muscle Imbalances: These squats can address any muscle imbalances that might exist between your legs, ensuring more balanced strength and stability between your limbs.

Muscle Growth and Hypertrophy: Bulgarian Split Squats can stimulate muscle growth and hypertrophy, leading to increased muscle mass and definition in your lower body.

Injury Prevention and Recovery: Performing this exercise will strengthen your joints, ligaments, and tendons. As such, it can reduce the impact and stress on your spine. This may help to prevent injuries and improve overall recovery after workouts.

Common Bulgarian Split Squat Mistakes and How to Maintain Proper Form

The Bulgarian Split Squat is, objectively, a pretty…different movement. As such, it’s essential to be mindful of the various errors and form breakdowns you might experience. These errors could compromise the effectiveness and safety of the exercise. Let’s take a look at some common stumbling blocks:

Foot positioning: Placing your front foot too far or too close to the bench or box can negatively impact your balance and range of motion. To avoid this, ensure that your front foot is positioned far enough away from the bench to allow a full range of motion while maintaining balance, but not so far that it strains your back leg.

Front knee alignment: Allowing your front knee to cave in or go too far past your toes (if you are lacking sufficient mobility) during the squat can increase stress and the risk of injury on your knee joint. To prevent this, make sure your knee is aligned over your ankle, and try not to let it go further than what your mobility allows for when you lower into the squat.

Posture: Rounding your back or leaning too far forward or backward can reduce the effectiveness and safety of Bulgarian split squats. Maintain a straight back throughout the exercise, engaging your core, and keeping your chest up. Concentrate on lowering your hips straight down toward the floor rather than leaning in any direction.

Head placement: Dropping your chest or looking down can affect your posture and breathing. If you’ve adopted the “look down at x-angle” head positioning from your Starting Strength days…well…that position doesn’t really work for this exercise! To keep proper form, focus on a point straight ahead which will help you maintain a consistent posture.

Weight selection: Using too much or too little weight can either limit your progress or cause you to lose form and control. Start with a manageable weight that still challenges your muscles, and increase it as you get more comfortable with the exercise. 

Bulgarian Split Squat Variations and Related Leg Exercises

There are many related exercises and variations of Bulgarian split squats that you can perform to target various muscles and level up your training. Here are some popular variations and related exercises:

  • Split squat: A simpler version of the Bulgarian split squat, where your rear foot is placed on the floor instead of a bench or a box. This allows you to focus on your quads, glutes, and hamstrings with a more stable base. A very popular exercise for Olympic weightlifting.
  • Rear-foot elevated split squat: A more challenging version of the Bulgarian split squat, where your rear foot is placed on a higher surface, such as a high plyo box. This variation helps you work on your stability, balance, and control.
  • Front-foot elevated split squat: A variation of the Bulgarian split squat, where your front foot is placed on a low surface, such as a plate or short plyo box . Ths targets your glutes, rectus femoris, and pelvis more and improves your range of motion.
  • Deficit split squat: A variation of the Bulgarian split squat, where both feet are placed on elevated surfaces, such as two benches or two boxes. This advanced version enhances your athleticism while targeting lower body muscles., but is definitely not for beginners!
  • Lunge: A dynamic version of the Bulgarian split squat, where you can alternate your feet between each rep instead of staying in a fixed position. Walking lunges, in particular, help improve your stability and overall athleticism.

Frequently Asked Questions

We know that the Bulgarian Split Squat isn’t the most common or easy-to-perform exercise. As such, we’ll field a couple more of your questions!

When it comes to performing Bulgarian split squats, you have a variety of equipment options. The most important thing is to find a sturdy surface for elevating your rear foot, such as a bench or plyo box. You can also use a specialized piece of equipment known as a Bulgarian squat pad, but it's not necessary if you have access to a suitable surface.

For added resistance and to engage more muscles during the exercise, you can use dumbbells or a barbell. Dumbbells are a great choice if you're just starting out or are looking for more balance and control. Simply hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing inwards while performing the split squat.

If you prefer using a barbell, it can be placed either on your back (similar to a traditional squat) or in the front rack position. As with any exercise, make sure to use a weight that's appropriate for your skill level and fitness goals.

If you're new to Bulgarian split squats or don't have access to weights, don't worry - you can still benefit from this exercise by doing it with just your bodyweight. As you progress and become stronger, you can gradually add resistance using the equipment mentioned above.

Bulgarian Split Squats aren’t really “contested” lifts and you’ll rarely find someone who knows what their PR is in this exercise. Even in a sport like CrossFit where there are a lot of…”interesting” movements included in WODs and metcons, the Bulgarian Split Squat is usually reserved for the “strength” portion of the session.

With that being said, trainees and athletes from every sport and discipline can benefit from incorporating Bulgarian Split Squats into their training regimen.

Bulgarian Split Squats – A Truly International Exercise

One of the most depressing moments of my life was when my joke fell completely flat at the CrossFit Level 1 seminar I attended in Sophia, Bulgaria.

We were discussing different squat variations and the types of squats we would be performing and critiquing during the seminar. I, jokingly, but definitely, inquired as to why the Bulgarian Split Squat wasn’t on the schedule.

Instead of their being slight chuckles all around (“hmm…well…oh, yes; we are in Bulgaria right now…haha…now shut up.”) I got a small lecture as to why the Bulgarian Split-Squat doesn’t quite fit into the “CrossFit Methodology”.

That humbling experience aside, I am still a big endorser of the Bulgarian Split Squat! If nothing else, I want you to perform them to spite my entire CF-L1 class and instructors who missed out on such a good joke!

…and, while we’re on the topic of lower-body exercises, don’t sleep on the many benefits of squatting exercises. Read up on how they can help you develop a pretty legit 6-pack in our article on the topic!

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AUTHOR

Tom, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, ISSA-CPT, PN1-NC, DPA, CAPM has been CrossFitting for over 10 years. He has participated in a number of team and individual CrossFit competitions across Europe and the United States. He was the 2012 Chick-fil-A Race Series champion (North Georgia Circuit) and has put together a few gnarly garage and basement gyms in his time!

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